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Arvid Jurjaks: I want to start at the current political situation in Israel with Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett being asked to form a government. How much chance do they have to succeed on this, you think?
Omri Boehm: I think it’s pretty clear that Yair Lapid has no chance, because Bennett, as far as we know, is no longer interested. The reason is that their coalition could only come to be relying on voices of Arab voters: that would have been something new, in fact, radically new in Israeli history. And that the right-wing would do that was bordering a fantasy even before the events of the last week. It’s pretty clear, we might add that these events take place for this very reason—the sufficient reason why this crisis unfolded is Netanyahu’s intention to prevent Lapid and Bennett’s coalition from taking power.
Arvid Jurjaks: So Netanyahu is basically succeeding.
Omri Boehm: Yes. I think that’s what we’re seeing. This hasn’t been said clearly enough in the media , as far as I can tell, even though there were gestures in this direction. I think what we’re seeing is actually something very similar to the storming of the Capitol. There was a chance to replace the government, but that transition of power was prevented by lighting a fire in Jerusalem and thereby in Israel and Gaza.
The context is important. Netanyahu was lacking the 61 voices that he needed in order to form a coalition and remain Prime Minister, a role that prevents him going to prison. So he did the unimaginable: in a desperate effort to cobble together a coalition, he allied with an Arab party that agreed to support him. So his was supposed to be a government formed by open Jewish fascists and Arab moderates. In the end the Jewish side refused to sit with Arabs and Netanyahu did not manage to form a coalition.
At that point, Netanyahu’s strategy backfired: he had legitimized Arab parties, so the opposition, formed by the right wing with the center, could also form alliances with them—previously they’d never have done that, but without Arabs they also couldn’t muster a majority. In other words Netanyahu’s failed maneuver was going to enable the opposition’s coalition. Within days he might have been replaced.
And that’s the moment when everything started: the moment when Israeli police officers tried breaking up demonstrations inside the Al-Aqsa mosque. There were tear gas and stun grenades inside the Al-Aqsa—that’s basically sufficient to ignite the whole Middle East, and it ignites Israeli Palestinians, Hamas in Gaza. Instantly a coalition of Palestinian Israeli parties with Israel’s center-right became impossible.
Arvid Jurjaks: At least in Swedish media, we are really careful with making that connection, that the violence that we currently see has a connection with Netanyahu’s possible loss of his Prime Minister post.
Omri Boehm: I think the media has to be careful, because they don’t want to publish things that they cannot base on facts. That’s important, but there’s a catch. Careful factchecking is premised on the freedom of press. And where a transition of government is prevented by igniting clashes that go near an all-out war, including civil war, it’s not clear the media enjoys that privilege. It’s important that the media is careful. But it’s also dangerous that the media does not report one of the main stories here: that Netanyahu is literally burning down the state to prevent a transition of power.
Arvid Jurjaks: Hmm. Is there any point to talk about Yair Lapid and what kind of goals he would have in trying to form a government?
Omri Boehm: I am not a prophet, so it’s difficult for me to say for sure. But I would say that this is 99.9% irrelevant. Yair Lapid will not form the next government. I think that the next step that we’re going to see is either a government with Benjamin Netanyahu, or another election that most likely will result in Netanyahu as a Prime Minister. But I could not swear on that.
Just to be clear: I was personally opposed to the so-called Change Coalition that was about to form. As a voter of the Joint List, I did not think that that party should have supported it. That coalition would have combined the radical right with the center in order to replace Netanyahu—and do that with the legitimacy of Arab voters and whatever remains of Israel’s liberal left. I was sharply against this, and that’s not something that I say because I’m a radical — or refuse political compromises. I mean, Naftali Bennett, Gideon Sa’ar, and Avigdor Lieberman, they stand to the right of Benjamin Netanyahu. Lieberman has supported ethnic cleansing. Bennett was the chairman of the settlers’ movement—they stand beyond the limits of what liberal Zionists, and certainly Arab voters, should cooperate with. We should have focused on building an opposition, not a coalition to replace Netanyahu. Anyway, this is history: this bad coalition is not going to be formed.
Arvid Jurjaks: And hypothetically, would they bring any change to the situation in Israel if they would have formed a government?
Omri Boehm: That depends on how you look at it. I think that a lot of Israeli Jews, and perhaps some Israeli Palestinians too, thought that they’d bring a change, namely defending the rule of law from destruction by Benjamin Netanyahu. That was the rationale for Palestinian Arabs and for liberal Zionists to support it. They agreed to form a kind of “professional government” that puts ideology aside.
But that government could never have advanced, let’s say, a two-state solution, if that’s something that still needs to be at all mentioned. It would not have promoted equality of citizens. It would not have promoted any political vision for Israel, neither of the center nor of the right, say by extending annexations. So, again, this government would have had only one reason to exist, and that was replacing Netanyahu and protecting the rule of law, which he by all means destroys.
Many also presented this as a step forward because of the fact that this coalition would have relied on Arab votes. I reject all the premises here and think it would’ve been a step backward: there is no Israeli rule of law to begin with. That includes putting aside the occupation which is colossal hypocrisy when pretending to defend the rule of law with racists who call for expulsions of Arabs—Lieberman— and expansion of Apartheid—imagine hat Bennett was going to be the Prime Minister.
The fact that the two of them, unlike Netanyahu’s hard-right allays, for a moment agreed to run with Arabs doesn’t show that Arab parties were “legitimized”. Bennett and Lieberman agreed to use Arab voters, and this is very different, frankly exactly the opposite, from recognizing legitimacy. The Arabs should not have offered to support them. In the event, all this was aborted by the raids inside al Aqsa and the ensuing violence.
The rule of law is important to take seriously—not just gestured towards hypocritically. If we take it seriously, it means that the law is the sovereign, not just used in order to rule. When someone or some group of people pays lip service to the law while in fact exercising unchecked power, then there is no rule of law. There is no rule of law where Israel controls the Palestinians with a military regime. And the concept of a Jewish state contradicts the rule of law from the get-go: in the Jewish state, the Jews use the law in order to rule. It’s not the case that the law is the ruler; the Jewish people are. The state isn’t public; it is as if it is the private property of Jews. Let us protect the rule of law by speaking about that. By having parties fight for that. Not legitimize racists and settlers to protect a “rule of law” where West Bank Palestinians suffer apartheid and Israeli Palestinians are at best second class citizens.
Arvid Jurjaks: How far away is Israel from apartheid?
Omri Boehm: I think that the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank are obviously an example of apartheid.
The so-called green line between Israel’s borders before 67 and after 67 is a myth that helps preserve the idea that within the 67 borders, Israel is a thriving democracy. And it’s true that Palestinian Israeli citizens, who can vote, even if they are second class citizens, do not facing a situation of apartheid. So it’s complex, but we should be pretty clear that the reality is much nearer to a full apartheid than to anything else.
People sometimes say that Zionism was corrupted by the occupation but that’s at best a half truth. The occupation of the West Bank has only been accepted because of Zionism — the Jewish state never regarded the rights of non-Jews as equal to those of Jews. The occupation only happened because of Zionism. And I think that the explosions that we’re seeing now are very much the result of that.
The Jewish and democratic aspirations of Israel were always contradictory, and as time passed Israelis have had to make a choice about their state: should it be Jewish or democratic –ultimately it can’t be both. Today, it’s becoming more and more Jewish and less and less democratic. And the majority of Israeli Jews are deeply attached to the notion of Jewish sovereignty, among other things because of the Holocaust, whose memory has been transformed into the perfect excuse to justify nationalist politics. And that’s the tragedy: the holocaust was perpetrated by nationalism, and it now serves to justify nationalism. There ought to be a way to do justice to the holocaust’s memory; that prevents it from becoming the main reason that prevents Israel from having a democratic state under the rule of law.
The idea that I try promoting in the book is of de-nationalizing memory, making it shared. Arabs and Jews ought to commemorate the Holocaust together. Arab citizens who have been living in the same country with Jews for years are aware of the suffering of Jews, are aware of Jewish history—I explore that in the book. And if the state diverted only a fraction of what it’s investing right now in indoctrination to nationalism, and created practices of joint commemoration, just civic commemoration of Arabs and Jews together, instead, then a new politics of memory could be formed. I would still be able to commemorate the Holocaust as a Jew privately. I would be able to commemorate the my own family’s relation to the Holocaust. But on the level of the state, commemoration would be civic rather than national.
Arvid Jurjaks: So the Nakba, the displacement of Palestinians in 1948, that should be jointly remembered too. Right?
Omri Boehm: Yes, we need to do the same with the Nakba. We have to stop repressing it. We need to research its history, teach it in schools and have practices that commemorate that event in a civic way, by all citizens in my, well, imagined “Haifa Republic,” a bi-national single state. Instead, today, we don’t just repress it: there is an Israeli law that even dictates that in some circumstances it’s illegal to commemorate the Nakba.
Arvid Jurjaks: The two-state solution as you say, it’s an open secret in Israel that it doesn’t exist anymore.
Omri Boehm: I think that’s obviously the case. Nobody speaks about it, no party.
In my book I argue for bi-nationalism instead. This idea is sometimes considered completely utopian. In some sense it is, in some sense it isn’t. I think that no one, almost no one, remembers the Begin “Autonomy” Plan of 1977. One of the main points of my book is to try to show its great advantages. People today do not even remember that there was such a plan, or if they remember it, then they remember the autonomy part of the plan and forget the other, crucial part. Begin refused to have a two-state solution because he refused to divide the land. But when he was pressed by Jimmy Carter, he proposed giving the Palestinians a national autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza and also full Israeli citizenship. They were to elect and be elected; travel freely and have full economic rights on the whole territory. I think that moving forward from the two-state solution in the direction of bi-nationalism, the fact that Begin proposed that; the fact that the Knesset voted on that and approved it (!) has to be remembered. I try to reconstruct from it a vision for genuine bi-nationalism. That’s my vision of a Haifa Republic.
As far as I can see, federative alternatives are the main option we have beyond the defunct two-state solution, and the ethnic nationalism that now passes for liberal Zionism.
The real questions need to be on the table immediately. They are: what are the alternatives to the two-state solution? How do we pursue such alternatives? What are the forces, the political parties, the international forces, that can be mobilized in order to promote such alternatives? This needs to stand now at the center of now public attention. If we fail to pursue such alternatives, what we will see is what we have been seeing in the last few days, only much, much worse. We just had a warning, a taste of what the future looks like short of post-ethnic politics in our post-two-state era.
Omri Boehm is associate professor of philosophy at The New School for Social Research. His book Haifa Republic: A Democratic Future for Israel, is forthcoming from New York Review Books in 2021.
Arvid Jurkas is a freelance journalist in culture and politics based in Berlin.